Why is no one talking about the Flyers?

Ken Hitchcock

Ken Hitchcock

9/21/2006 2:58:52 PM

MONCTON, N.B. (CP) - A year ago at this time the Philadelphia Flyers were fancied by many in the Eastern Conference, the acquisition of superstar centre Peter Forsberg as well as other big moves coming out of the NHL lockout making them a solid bet for the Stanley Cup.

''We liked ourselves, too, after 55 games last season,'' head coach Ken Hitchcock said this week. ''What changed for us was the two games before the Olympic break when we lost four guys.''

Philadelphia lost 388 man-games to injury last season, third in the NHL behind Boston and St. Louis but the only club among the top nine leaders in that category to make the post-season. Hitchcock's limping squad lost meekly to Buffalo in the first round of the playoffs.

''We weren't the same after the Olympic break,'' said Hitchcock.

Some critics saw it differently, they felt the Flyers were left behind by the new NHL, too slow to keep up with the speed and offence which had become key ingredients in the revamped game. Hitchcock rolled his eyes at the mere mention of this.


''Until (defencemen) Joni Pitkanen and (Eric) Desjardins got hurt last year, we were the No. 2-scoring team in the NHL next to Detroit,'' he pointed out. ''Our problem last year was that we didn't play good enough defence. We were 16th overall in defence, our penalty killing was inconsistent. Our goals-against average was mid-pack and we've never been that way before. That was the major problem for us, our problem was not scoring goals.''

A quiet off-season in terms of player moves, at least by Flyers' standards, seems to have scared people off their bandwagon. The Flyers - who had 15 players undergo surgery in the off-season to fix their ailments - aren't garnering much attention on the eve of the NHL season, and yet Hitchcock feels better about his team this time around.

''The best thing that's happened to us is that none of our core has changed,'' said Hitchcock, who signed a three-year extension earlier this week. ''Last year our core changed dramatically.''

Hitchcock pointed out, amazingly, that only three players are left from the Flyers team that reached the Eastern Conference final in the 2004 playoffs.

''Last year with all the core changes that we made with Peter Forsberg, Mike Knuble, Derian Hatcher, Mike Rathje (among others) - those guys are now in a second season together, they're more comfortable,'' Hitchcock reasoned. ''There's a calmness in our locker-room, there's a comfort level with each other now. And the players that we added are excellent depth players.''

Flyers fans weren't terribly excited with the off-season moves but Hitchcock said they were important ones, depth players such as forwards Marty Murray, Randy Robitaille, Brad Tapper, Mark Cullen and defenceman Nolan Baumgartner, guys that were missing last year when Philadelphia got ravaged by injury. The Flyers had to rely on seven rookies to play 25 or more games last season.

''What happened last year was that with all the changes we had to make game by game we had to blow up three lines just to remain competitive,'' said Hitchcock. ''Now we feel like if we need to make a change we can use one of the skilled depth guys and fit him in and not miss a beat.''

Flyers GM Bob Clarke did make a trade of note this summer, sending quality two-way centre Michal Handzus to Chicago in exchange for winger Kyle Calder.

Hitchcock praised Handzus for his work as a Flyer but says this was a trade that was necessary simply due to the need for a winger.

''We ended up last year with so many centres playing wing that there wasn't enough pucks to go around,'' he said. ''Having Kyle as a natural winger, he's tremendous along the boards. He's only 175 pounds but he always comes up with the puck and he always gets it to the net. He's a good fit.''

There are still too many centres on the Flyers, six to be precise, a problem most NHL teams would dream of having. Hitchcock is experimenting in pre-season by putting second-year centre Jeff Carter at wing with Mike Richards and Calder - dubbed by the Philly media as the CCR line.

''We want to see what Carter can do with Richards and Calder because that was something that was put together at the (IIHF) world championship by Team Canada and it clicked. So we want to see what they can do for us,'' said Hitchcock.

''After three pre-season games we'll make an evaluation one way or another.''

Hitchcock was impressed here Wednesday night when the line combined for three goals and wreaked havoc in the Pittsburgh end.

''They had a tremendous night,'' said Hitchcock.

''I think we complement each other on the ice and right now we just feel really comfortable together,'' Richards said after the 5-4 loss to the Penguins.

Should the unit stay together by the end of camp, it figures to be the second line behind Forsberg's trio with Simon Gagne and Mike Knuble. The third line would likely feature Petr Nedved between R.J. Umberger and Geoff Sanderson. In other words, a pretty potent and balanced top three lines.

''Offensively I think we're going to be a good team again but we have to get better defensively, we just have to,'' said Hitchcock.

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Ottawa at Toronto
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